Officials in the city of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., who had ordered participants of a home Bible study either to purchase an unobtainable city permit to meet or shut down, now are relenting a little.
City officials have said the Bible study targeted earlier for banishment can continue to meet, but they are reserving the right to shut down other Bible studies.
Brad Dacus, whose Pacific Justice Institute is working on the case, said then it appeared city officials were deliberately choosing to close down the study, which had been ordered to cease by Good Friday.
But the institute now has confirmed Rancho Cucamonga has dropped its pending enforcement action against the group, although the way is not yet clear for others to meet.
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Pacific Justice reported the mayor and other city officials even visited the Friday night Bible study last week.
Rancho Cucamonga officials had demanded that the small home Bible-study group stop meeting or apply to purchase a Conditional Use Permit that also would be required for a full church operation. Dacus said the study group has been meeting Friday nights and averages about 15 people. Members are affiliated with Shiloh Tabernacle, which rents a community center for Sunday services.
The city’s letter insisted the study is not allowed because it is a “church,” Dacus said. In the city, churches are required to obtain a Conditional Use Permit in residential areas.
“The city has also indicated that no CUP would be granted and the gatherings must cease by Good Friday, April 2,” PJI said.
“However, while the city has dropped its enforcement action against the Bible study group, the city has indicated that it did so only because it determined that the Friday night group did not appear to be a ‘church,'” according to a new Justice Institute report.
“In a letter to Pacific Justice Institute last week, an attorney for the city defended the city’s requirement that all churches in residential zones are illegal unless they obtain a costly permit. Thus, small home-based religious groups that consider themselves churches or meet on Sunday mornings instead of weeknights could still face severe enforcement action by the city at any time. And to date, city officials have taken no action to change this policy,” the report said.
“We are very pleased that the City of Rancho Cucamonga saw the light and dropped their attempts to shut down this Friday night Bible study,” said attorney Michael Peffer, who heads PJI’s Southern California office.
“At the same time, we are concerned that the city appears determined to use the same heavy-handed tactics against house churches. We urge any church or Bible study group threatened by Rancho Cucamonga or any other local government to contact PJI immediately,” he said.
The situation was similar to a dispute that arose recently in Gilbert, Ariz., and another last year in San Diego County.
In the previous cases, San Diego County officials apologized after a code-enforcement officer tried to shut down a Bible study, and in Gilbert, officials told WND they were working on a change in a zoning requirement that had been interpreted by staff members to ban Bible studies from residences.
Dacus said the Rancho Cucamonga stance is a significant problem because its definition of a church is so broad.
“According to their definition a family praying over their dinner would qualify as a church,” he told WND.
“When you step back and look at communist China, home churches are being persecuted there. This isn’t any different. And this isn’t even a church, just a Bible study, facing the same ultimatums, the same demands as in communist China,” he said.
The city, however, has no similar restrictions for Monday-night football parties or other events held in homes, PJI pointed out.